Movie Review: Waiting For ‘Superman’

Published by Clay Cane on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm.

Summary: A probing look at the American public school system.

Review: The news that our American public school system is in complete shambles is nothing earthshattering. This has been happening for years, especially in neighborhoods that have endured generations of poverty. However, in the past 30 years, the toxicity of public schools has even spilled over into the suburbs. As we all know, tragedy is often not taken seriously until the suburbs are affected. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director behind An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ examines the root of school failure. While many point to poor environments or budget cuts as the culprits, the film questions whether the problem is actually bad teachers. For some audiences, especially those who are teachers, the thesis of Waiting for ‘Superman’ will feel like another blame game. In reality, it’s a complex analysis of why public schools are failing, which the documentary tackles.

Guggenheim delivers some heavy educating on the U.S. public education system. The content is informative with diagrams and cute animations, but for some this will come off as didactic and too agenda-driven. But, what’s a documentary without an agenda?

Unlike Michael Moore, whose documentaries are always laced with wit and sarcasm, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is soaked in facts that have already caused controversy.  For example, the heroine in the film, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. schools, is now at risk of losing her job post the D.C. mayoral primary.  She terminated teachers, tried to reinvent the school system and was praised by many.  Now, post the documentary, Vincent Gray, the man who will more than likely be D.C.’s next mayor, said he is considering re-hiring some of the 266 teachers that Rhee fired for allegedly being incompetent (some due to budget reasons).

The viewer is almost left with a haunting feeling that this will never change; the system is broken and no one is bothering to fix it. Furthermore, what about the Americans who do receive a solid education but still cannot move forward due to the structures of race, gender and class?  Sometimes not even education can save you from the trappings of generations of societal imbalance.

Like most documentaries, the heart of the film is the personal stories. The climax of the movie features a lottery that each child must enter if they want a better education outside of public schooling. It’s heartbreaking to watch American children (we always assume American kids don’t value education), desperately wanting a chance at a fair education, have their fates decided by a bouncing ball with a number on it like the Mega-Million jackpot. Is a proper education truly based on luck? Seeing child after child and their parents – some of whom are the products of a poor education themselves – get rejected because luck wasn’t on their side, was horrifying.

Overall, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is a powerful documentary that should be seen by as many people as possible. We should all be hesitant to blame teachers; the reasons for America’s problems seem to shift to a new group every decade. Moreover, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is not blaming teachers, the doc is examining an area of education that has been ignored, our educators.  ‘Superman’ is about the personal stories of children at risk, regardless of the politics that will be argued for ions.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens in select cities Friday, September 24th.

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